More than 20,000 foreign fighters have now joined the conflict in Syria and Iraq – Dateline hears from one of the most senior Australians on the frontline.
Young Australian Muslims are travelling to this war zone to fight. They're joining the Syrian conflict, even though it's left 200,000 people dead and millions of lives in tatters. The world knows about Islamic State, but another main group in the conflict is Jabhat al-Nusra. They're al-Qaeda's Syrian arm.
Tonight we hear exclusively from an Australian - one of their senior leaders.
ABU SULAYMAN AL MUHAJIR, JABHAT AL-NUSRA: Leave our lands. Stop interfering in our affairs or face a perpetual war.
NAGIEB KHAJA, REPORTER: It is May 2014 in North West Syria. It's the first of several visits as I attempt to negotiate access to al-Qaeda's Syrian arm - Jabhat al-Nusra. It's one of the most powerful jihadist groups fighting the Syrian regime. I want to understand what is drawing young western Muslims to join them. Our plane is circling the area. Nusra and its allies are carving out a new Islamic State to rival' self-styled caliphate in the east. It's under heavy attack from regime aircraft. Senior Nusra members are extremely cautious, they don't use phone or email, it takes three days to pass on a message and all can I do is wait.
I can hear it, air strike. It's quite terrifying actually to live in this area. Eventually in December, after several failed attempted and weeks of scrutiny from Nusra security people, I'm finally being taken to meet the Egyptian-Australian Nusra official, Abu Sulayman al Muhajir. A former preacher in Sydney, he's been in Syria for at least two years and is on the most-wanted list of western intelligence agencies. It's actually the first time that a high-ranking member of Jabhat al-Nusra is going to talk to a western journalist. I don't know the destination t place where I'm going to meet him. I've just been told by one of the Nusra members that I'm driving with to blindfold myself and they told me to do it because of the security situation.
Early in the civil war, al-Qaeda Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra emerged as the most powerful and secretive rebel force. But then in mid 2013 in a very public conflict on the jihadist blogosphere, ISIS splintered from Nusra’s ranks and mounted a bloody challenge for control over territory and ideology. Abu Sulayman was a mediator between the two groups as they attempted to reconcile but afterwards sided with Nusra. I wanted to ask him what Nusra was doing in Syria and why they were not now in competition with ISIS.
ABU SULAYMAN AL MUHAJIR: Jabhat al-Nusra is the sole official representative of al-Qaeda in Syria. Our main effort maybe local but they are part of a wider international Islamic movement. All Islamic movements around the world want an Islamic state, but the IS group have defined themselves as
the exclusive bearers of Islam, delegitimising the rest of the Muslim community and its efforts.
Back in Europe as I was trying to understand this, I sought the help of an expert on ISIS and al Nusra.
DR JOSHUA LANDIS, CENTRE FOR MIDDLE EAST STUDIES: The main difference is the way they treat others. ISIS want to dominate and crush any competitors, so in that sense the ISIS model was successful initially but I think Nusra will be the winner in the long run. On the one hand it wants to be Islamist and worries ISIS has stolen that franchise on the other hand, they don’t want to be brutal, they are trying to say “look, we are more with the people, we are more indigenous, we are more willing to work with you, we are more flexible.
But this is still al-Qaeda, and along with ISIS the US is targeting them with drone and air strikes. Last September America targeted an Nusra unit, code named the Khorosan group that the White House said was dedicated specially to planning and launching terrorist attacks in the west.
ABU SULAYMAN AL MUHAJIR: This is not a new war. We all knew the attack was coming and their final justification to invade was arbitrary.
They claim that they are only targeting a group that have been tasked specifically with attacking the west.
ABU SULAYMAN AL MUHAJIR: There's a clear disparity between what they say they do and what they actually do on the ground. They say they formed a coalition to attack the IS group and they went about targeting any group that they suspect wouldn't fall in line with US foreign policy, and serve them in them in the region, serve their interests
REPORTER: Who did they target then?
ABU SULAYMAN AL MUHAJIR: Look Nagieb I'm not going to get into who they did or didn't target. That would be breaching security. I'll say this much - they hit Islamic groups all over Syria from the borders of Iraq to borders of Turkey.
I went to investigate the site of the first strikes myself.
AMER DEGHAYES, BRITISH JIHADI: This is the boring areas of Syria.
REPORTER: What is it?
AMER DEGHAYES: The boring areas of Syria.
REPORTER: What why is this place boring?
AMER DEGHAYES: It's not green enough. If there was no jihad here I don't think I'd ever come here.
I'm sitting here with Amer Degahayes, who's a British foreign fighter and a member of Jabhat al-Nusra, and we're on our way to the site where his friend Khalil Kamara was killed by an American attack. 22-year-old Amer is the last of four young British jihadis from Brighton in the south of England who came here secretly in 2013. As well as losing Kamara last year, Amer's two teenage brothers, Abdullah and Jaffar were also killed. Amer had been fighting as a freelancer, but he recently put himself on the international terrorist list by swearing allegiance to al-Nusra.
AMER DEGHAYES: Looks like the hit came from this side, huh? The front. Ah that's Khalil's. It's
definitely Khalili's, I remember that.
REPORTER: How long have you and Khalil been friends?
AMER DEGHAYES: Since 2009. Just about.
REPORTER: So you were friends from back then in Brighton?
AMER DEGHAYES: Yeah.
REPORTER: They say that they targeted people here in Syria because there was an imminent threat of an attack on America.
AMER DEGHAYES: For sure this place wasn't. They were just military they were just normal soldiers.
REPORTER: Has Khalil ever told you that he had plans of going back to Britain or the States and committing attacks?
AMER DEGHAYES: No, never. It just makes things clearer who the real enemy is.
Amer takes me to another bombed-out building five minutes down the road where the leadership of the so-called Khorosan group is alleged to have plotted attacks against the west. This is the place where the al-Qaeda veteran Abu Yusufal Turki, a renowned sharp shooter, killed together with other members of Jabhat al-Nusra. There is a lot of confusion around who this Khorasn group actually is, or if it even existed at all. What we do know is that many of those who died were part of a sniper unit called itself 'The Wolves', a unit led by al Turki.
DR JOSHUA LANDIS: We bombed them on the first day we bombed ISIS to lay down a marker. I think Obama did it for a number of reasons - first perhaps they were legitimately frightened of it but secondly they wanted to let the world know that they're not just bombing ISIS who had chopped off American heads in Iraq, but they're rolling this into the larger fight against al-Qaeda - terrorism and its self-defence, so it had a big banner saying we're defending the homeland.
Whatever the truth about the Khorsan group, it's young men like Amer who western intelligence services fear the most. Abu Sulayman makes the threat clear.
ABU SULAYMAN AL MUHAJIR: Their choice is simple: Leave our lands, stop interfering in our affairs or face a perpetual war. They rob our resources. They back tyrants. They force regime change and they economically enslave our nations.
AMER DEGHAYES: I mean, why do they see me as a threat? It is because they have a guilty conscience about what they've done the Muslims? It's almost like they're indicating we should be a threat to them.
Today Syria is the world's number one haven for international Islamists. But behind the sensational headlines, the civilian population has been forgotten. Millions of Syrians still face bombs, starvation and a freezing winter, and vicious mafias have filled the vacuum where the regime once held power.
TAUQIR SHARIF, AID WORKER: Now you're going to struggle to walk, it's really thick mud.
Aid worker Tauqir Sharif shows me around a refugee camp that's just been devastated by a flash flood.
TAUQIR SHARIF: As you can see these are the people that are the worst hit. Look how thick the mud is, can you see how thick the mud is? And most of the houses, most of the tents, I think they've already moved them. You can see that guy's tent over there, completely flooded.
WOMAN (Translation): People are dying in their homes.
MAN (Translation): There is nothing at all We need heaters … blankets … mattresses ...
WOMAN (Translation): Look at this poor baby girl. Isn’t it heartbreaking that she’s shivering? It’s ok baby. It’s ok. Look at these children. It’s a sin.
MAN (Translation): People are stealing from eachother. Bring good people to look after us so that we don’t end up killing each other. They send a lot of aid but we get nothing.
TAUQIR SHARIF: He's talking about many things - corruption, exploitation. He said now the camp managers here are like gangsters. They go around with guns and so everyone is afraid of them and so no-one speaks up. They were saying, we're Muslims. Where's the Islam?
It's among this population that the ideological struggle for Syria's future is taking place. ISIS and Nusra are warring over territory but they're also rivals for popular support.
REPORTER: What does al-Qaeda want?
ABU SULAYMAN AL MUHAJIR: First we want to remove Bashar al-Assad and his regime, and make sure he’s not replaced by another dictator or that a Russian client government is replaced by a western client state. The new government must be one which genuinely serves the interests of the people. Now, what does that practically mean here: We want to restore the right of the Muslim people to choose their leaders independently, and establish just governance through an Islamic system that we know as rule we know as shura.
Al-Nusra are too wary to let me film freely. In between my meetings with them I also spent time with their allies from the Islamic Front Rebel Coalition, who showed me how - from subsidised grocery shops, pharmacies and clinics to this Islamic Front representative giving out bread on the street. They've already replaced the mechanisms of the Syrian state with their own social welfare and judicial system. At this Islamic Front hospital in Idlibt the victims of a barrel bombing have just arrived.
DOCTOR SARIAH, MARAAT AL-NU’MAN HOSPITAL: 60 people were injured in this attack and about 15 were killed.
BOY (Translation): Don’t cry or you’ll lose more blood.
DOCTOR SARIAH: My people are killed by Bashar al-Assad and his regime because they called him just one thing - leave, we want to live. Just leave, we want to live. And no-one answer us.
And I filmed a couple of cases at an Islamic Front Sharia court.
MAN (Translation): But there were two or three witnesses…
DR JOSHUA LANDIS: It's stability. Law and order, unfortunately is what people crave today. This more brutal kind of Islamist party that can assert its authority over all the other militias is popular because people just want to know who is boss and how to get things done and have some normalcy in their lives.
I asked Abu Sulayman about human rights under Sharia.
ABU SULAYMAN AL MUHAJIR: Every society needs a penal code and having said that, I will not be apologetic about any aspect of Islam. In the US, for example, after spending possibly decades in solitary confinement, they will drag a man out of his cell, strap him to a table and pump him with a cocktail tail of
chemicals until he eventually dies. But of course he can choose his last meal, which somehow makes it all humane. Now, we have our penal code in which punishments are appropriate to the crimes committed and act as a deterrent for others. Islam to us is whole and complete and that includes corporal and capital punishment.
The Islamic Front rebels I met seemed to agree.
REPORTER: What about people who are not religious in Syria?
MAN (Translation): We tried it in the past, we don’t want to try and live another secularism. We want Islam.
REPORTER: You think that Assad rule represents secular law?
REPORTER: A plane is circling over this village.
We heard a big blast, a bomb and they estimated it was approximately 8km from here. Two bombs. That was a new blast.
MAN: Around of my village, 4 kilos.
REPORTER: Kind of scary. It gets closer all the time, you know.
MAN (Translation): I swear to God, the soil of this mountain is alive and we are going to teach Assad’s thugs a lesson.
Abandoned by the outside world Syria's Sunni community seems to be solidifying around its religious identity.
DR JOSHUA LANDIS: So the 20% religious minorities who of course don't want anything to do with Islamic rule. But amongst Sunni Arabs it's a language of virtue and justice that everyone understands.
Back in Syria I was still trying to understand the ideology that draws young men from abroad to risk everything in this conflict.
REPORTER: What is your role in this revolution?
AMER DEGHAYES:To fight in the path of Allah, to remove the Bashar regime and to protect the Muslims. The recent revolutions, you know the aims is to remove the oppression and hopefully bring and implement Islam and Islamic justice, but then you find the west will see that as a threat to their super power, because as you can see, the west, their choice of capitalism, causes a lot of injustice. So if people see the light of Islam and the justice of Islam - that would cause the spread of it and that is something they wouldn't want.
REPORTER: Can you tell me what happened recently with your brother?
AMER DEGHAYES:Yes, so his name was Jaffer and he was 17 years old and we were offered a behind enemy lines operation.
REPORTER: So he is dead now. How did you feel when you found out about his death?
AMER DEGHAYES:I felt calm ness. My legs shook a little bit but the first thoughts I had was inshallah Allah will accept them as the best of martyrs.
REPORTER: He was really young. Do you think he was mature enough to understand what he was going into?
AMER DEGHAYES: He was young in age but not in wisdom and maturity.
REPORTER: You've lost two brothers now.
AMER DEGHAYES:The first feelings that come is that I'm happy for them, you know, that they were killed in the path of Allah.
As rebels took control of the north, Muslims from all over the world flocked here. Some came to fight, others came to build a new, Islamic Utopia, and others came to do aid work. While I'm hanging around waiting to meet the Nusra fighters, I meet a Danish relief worker, Alexander, in a refugee camp near the border.
ALEXANDER CHEBIL, AID WORKER (Translation): We're building a new mosque here. At the least, it’s a place where people can come together
Tomorrow Alexander is making an extremely dangerous journey to deliver aid to the front-line city of Aleppo.
ALEXANDER CHEBIL (Translation): This is our aid depot. There’s a bit of a system to the mess. This is our hospital equipment….I’m sure I’m making a really big difference for a lot of people we’re helping.
I don’t get paid for the work I’m doing here. I do this completely voluntarily. Hopefully I’ll get my reward another way
I’m travelling with Alexander into Aleppo today because a British jihadi that has agreed to talk to me. We're lucky it's cloudy. Government helicopters are smashing the city into rubble, routinely dropping explosives in the crude, improvised barrel bombs. Today the cloud cover means they can't seem to aim.
ALEXANDER CHEBIL: The front-line is actually right there.
He stops to figure out a way to get past the snipers into the front-line neighbourhood of Salaheddin.
REPORTER (Translation): You okay, not scared?
BOY (Translation): I don’t get scared, I don’t. I only fear God.
ALEXANDER CHEBIL (Translation): There’s a sniper shooting here. I guess he saw something moving.
Civilian families are still living in the midst of the heaviest fighting because this is the safest place to hide from the bombs. They're so inaccurate - just barrels filled with TNT and shrapnel - that pilots can't be sure of not hitting their own troops.
MAN (Translation): A sniper, yes speed up!
ALEXANDER CHEBIL (Translation): That was a sniper. He just shot at the car in front.
Those still left here are mostly too poor or too sick to flee. It's impossible to describe how terrifying life is here underneath the bombs.
MAN (Translation): Say hello to them, say hello.
The British jihadi I meet has agreed to talk only if his identity is concealed. He tells me that what he's doing is an act of solidarity with civilians who are suffering. Though he fights for Nusra, he hasn't yet sworn allegiance, but he justifies attacking the west according to geopolitical arguments.
JIHADI: Every time we try to build fair, free or independent governments anywhere in the world, they're subverted and overthrown by foreign powers for their own interests. Anyone should be able to understand why al-Qaeda chooses to target the inter-National Powers that are responsible for this.
Elsewhere in Aleppo, I asked people what they thought about the US strikes against Nusra.
MAN (Translation): They are an integral part of this revolution, an integral part of this revolution. We strongly condemn the attacks on them. Instead of attacking the rebels, they should attack the criminal regime.
JIHADI: America could have removed Assad whenever they wanted to, but they didn't. The bottom line is that Assad is their best option in Syria at the moment because he serves their interests the best. They don't want popular rule in the Middle East, because Arabs feel for their brothers in Palestine and because America doesn't want an Islamic group gaining a stronghold or legitimacy in the Middle East, because a strong Islamic nation will never be subservient to foreign interests.
What was already a bitter sectarian conflict seems to have become more polarised since the Coalition began targeting Nusra. For many here, this is evidence that the west is now siding with Assad.
WOMAN (Translation): America did not support the weak people. America chose to be against Muslims and against….It’s an attack on the Syrian people - against their revolution, their values and their freedom. The al-Nusra is the one that’s fighting the regime in Syria. The Syrian people have suffered so much injustice. But God Almighty sent them men who kept their promise to Him.
JIHADI: The west has to realise that the Syrian people are not fighting to establish a carbon copy of a western secular democracy. They're Muslim people fighting to establish what they want - an independent Islamic government, call that what you will, but it's not terrorism.
As the Syrian civil war moves into its fifth year, this part of the country is securely in the hands of the Islamists. Whatever the response of the outside world, it's hard to imagine a scenario that doesn't risk further deepening the sectarian divisions or driving more young men into an early grave.
Director and Producer
Producer and Editor
24th March 2015